“We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?”
Five stars for The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez. I devoured this richly-written novel, that is simultaneously poignant and hopeful. We follow the lives of two immigrant families closely, as well as pepperings of perspectives from minor characters.
“and I felt the way I often felt in this country—simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore.”
As a white woman born in the United States, I will not even pretend to know the hardships that the average immigrant faces. This book doesn’t focus so much on the journey TO the US but the fight to survive once you’re in the US. In the US, we loudly proclaim about our freedoms and our progress, but if you’re not a white, English speaking, native born American, the experience is likely very different. We build our nation on the back of immigrants but make it so hard for them to succeed. Henríquez highlights the longing for home, the longing for safety, for acceptance and recognition, for the chance at a specialized education. Our characters love their countries of origin, where they aren’t an outsider, where the food is familiar and people speak their language, where they had a nice house that they traded for the cramped apartment building, but they all have their reasons for emigrating. One of our families moved solely to provide their daughter that sustained a head injury with better treatment and education. They gave up a comfortable life for a one bedroom apartment, for a low wage job, for looks of disdain and intolerance, for threats of their safety solely for being an immigrant. Through this writing, I felt a fraction of the weight that our immigrants carry, how small they’re made to feel, the huge sacrifices for some of the liberties that we take advantage of every day. I could feel our characters silently retreating into themselves. Henríquez writes so vividly that I was able to get a window into their lives.
“Like they really want to be tied to the underside of a car or stuffed into a trunk like a rug or walking in nothing but some sorry-ass sandals through the burning sand for days, a bottle of hot water in their hands? Half of them ending up dead, or burned up so bad that when someone finds them, their skin is black and their lips are cracked open? Another half of them drowning in rivers. And half after that picked up by la migra and sent back to where they came from, or beaten, or arrested.”
The thing is, this book had tragic moments but it managed to maintain a clear vision of hope. I spoke of our characters retreating into themselves but they were also resilient, beating back at the forces trying their damndest to make them feel insignificant. At heartbreakingly depressing moments, they found laughter. Some of our characters soldier on through, make a humble life for themselves, some achieve great things, some go back to their home countries willingly, happy to return. We get a sense of how brutal the US can be, how unsafe for some, and we also get a sense of pride that our immigrants hold for having built a life here, pride for the US itself. It isn’t one or the other. We can be brutal and safe at the same time. Everyone doesn’t have the same experience. Some people are more realistic and others are more idealistic, some people maintain their optimism despite anything they’ve experienced. The thing is, I felt more resentment for the way we treat immigrants after reading this book than the characters themselves did. The forgiveness and kindness in these characters was humbling, the optimism while breaking their backs for a chance at a simple life was simply awe-inspiring. Natural born Americans often treat immigrants cruelly, and in this book I am reminded at how often we are undeserving of the kindness that they unselfishly extend. I don’t know if that was even a point intended in the book, but it very much rang true for me.
All in all, this was a book I read very quickly and turned to most often while simultaneously reading multiple other books. Henríquez gives each characters their own voice that is easily distinguishable each other. They speak clearly and evocatively. Their feelings and experiences are varied but there is a unity threaded lovingly into their stories. I could envision Panama or Mexico from her words, imagine the scenery or the respective foods described. I could sense the longing for home warring with their will to start a new life. Things aren’t tidied up neatly with a bow on top. There’s some harsh moments. At the end of the day, this was a beautiful and heartbreaking read.